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I’ve Heard Such Mixed Things

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, a reader in possession of a platform must be in want of an opinion.

As news desks covering books have disappeared, book bloggers and bookstagrammers and booktokers have proliferated. As such, I hate to break it to you, but you’re going to see some really mean comments about your book.

But chin up, because the reality is? There have always been people who hated your book. In a different generation, they just wouldn’t have had an easy way to let you know they hated it. And while that might not seem like much of a silver lining, then let this be: there are also people who love it and will talk about it so much you’ll wonder who, exactly, is paying them.

So, this is the way of things now, for better or worse. But whether the social media reviews are good or bad, it’s the volume of them that can feel particularly relentless. Your publisher wants them to be relentless. Relentless is a good thing in this ecosystem of content attention. Yet for all the good it may ultimately do, we should at least acknowledge that it’s different. That authors today are dealing with something authors yesterday did not: the presumption of access. And its corollary: the feeling that your reader is now looking over your shoulder.

So here are some things that help me navigate all that (when I remember to take my own advice):

No book is universally beloved so stop trying to write one that is. Because of my day job, I get tagged in reviews of other writer’s audiobooks. Sometimes I’m tagged even when the author isn’t, because while the reviewer liked my performance, it’s a bad review of the book (and the good reviewers have learned not to tag the author in negative reviews – seriously, what HEROES). So let me tell you: books you may think are universally beloved? Aren’t. There is some corner of social media that hates them. One of my favorite moments in one of my favorite movies, The Big Sick, has Ray Romano’s character utterly baffled by internet opinions: “This is why I don’t want to go online, ‘cause it’s never good. You go online, they hated Forrest Gump. Frickin best movie ever.” Even if you, in your social media bubble, have seen only positive posts about these books, trust me, if you scroll through the comments, you will inevitably see that someone has written: “oh, I’m so glad you liked it! I’ve heard such mixed things.” Whaaaat? you will think. Where? The internet. That’s where. Universally beloved books don’t exist. No one has ever written one. You will never write one. So you don’t have to try to!

Your opinion is just as valid as theirs. Roland Barthes argued that once a text is out in the world, the author, for all intents and purposes, is dead. That their opinion of the work they’ve created is no longer more valid than that of any reader. That’s a tough pill to swallow. After all, we are the final arbiters of right or wrong interpretations of our work. If a reader fundamentally misunderstands something about, say, our plot, then they are, objectively, wrong. But that doesn’t mean their opinion of the work is wrong. And in turn, that certainly doesn’t mean that our opinion of our work is wrong. In fact, I would argue – and I did – it’s the only thing that matters (see my previous post about only competing with yourself).

Some people are just miserable. In my experience, most reviewers understand how to say something that reflects their personal, subjective experience. “This book wasn’t the right fit for me.” “I just didn’t connect with it”. The ones who are vitriolic and have zero self-awareness (“this book is trash!!” “worst book ever written!!!”) are not to be taken seriously, the same way we don’t take seriously those same people in the real world. They are misanthropic and tedious on Instagram, just as they are in life. Would you let this kind of person offer their unsolicited opinion about your wife, your kid, your job? Realize this is a them problem, not a you problem. Have boundaries around whose words you take to heart.

If you can’t stick to your boundaries, then control your interaction. Goodreads is for readers, not authors. We all know that, right? So what are you doing on there? Can’t keep up with Facebook comments? You don’t actually have to. Overwhelmed by Instagram? Don’t let people tag you. Seriously. I know authors who have changed their settings to prevent people from tagging them. When they’re ready – if they ever are – to see what’s being said about their book, they will search for the hashtag. Or, a heretical proposal: you could delegate a friend to send you only the good posts. Now, some people will argue, well, if you’re going to read the good reviews you should also read the bad. Why? Please, explain that to me. The time for notes and critiques has passed. The book is done. Anything you may learn from bad reviews can only be applied to the next book and that’s like trying to divine from tea leaves what the weather will be tomorrow. Besides, if you’re anything like me, no one’s going to think there’s more wrong with your book than you already do. In my opinion, we all have to believe we’re writing for a reason. That all this work is worth it. So if you only want to read reviews that make you feel like it actually is worth it, then do that. Fill your boot, man. Whatever gets you back at the desk. For that reason, I love this post by Therese Walsh and I think about the phrase “protect the flame” at least once a week.

You didn’t write the book for the people who don’t like it. Intellectually, we know this. But when we’re slogging our way through a draft, spending years on this thing, it’s not, uhhhh, fun when people don’t like it. Oh, it isn’t personal? Of course it’s personal! It’s my heart and my brain and my guts and my time on this earth poured onto those pages about which your review just said, “I mean… meh?” As a writer, actor, and artist in general, I long ago learned you can’t please everyone. How could you? No one book (or performance or song or painting) can be for everyone. When you aim for that, you get books that don’t take risks, that don’t say anything new, don’t challenge. And guess what happens then? There will still be people who don’t like it. Why? Because it’s derivative. They’ve seen it a million times before. The goal is not, nor should it be, to “write for everyone.” It should be, I think, to write for someone. And on that note…

The final thing I’ll leave you with is that something social media does not celebrate is the magic of dumb-luck timing. So much energy goes into ARC reviews, then launch week, then the first month on-sale. But books continue to live and some of my favorite posts are the ones that happen 8 months, 14 months, 2 years after pub. When someone picked it up at a Little Free Library in a vacation town, or their cousin’s coworker’s sister gave it to them at a bachelorette weekend, or they saw another post where someone said, “I’ve heard such mixed things” and they thought, well, I’ll be the judge of that. I’m truly mystified by how books find readers at the right time.

Your book can be just what someone needed. And the same person, had they read it last year, or right after they broke up with their boyfriend or, hell, right after they fell in love with their new boyfriend, wouldn’t have liked it. They weren’t ready for it then. What we like isn’t static. When we were kids, we didn’t like brussels sprouts. Now, we may crave them. Crisped up, with a little balsamic glaze and bacon? Freakin best vegetable ever.

That’s who you’re writing for. Some future version of someone. You’re writing for an audience you can’t know, at a time you can’t predict. It’s some real message-in-a-bottle stuff. That’s what social media is like to me: making a wish, taking aim, and watching whose shore your book washes up on.

Question: Have you had the experience of reading a book and not liking it, then picking it up again at a different time and it’s like a new book?



About Julia Whelan

Julia Whelan is a screenwriter, lifelong actor, and award-winning audiobook narrator of over 500 titles. Her performance of her own debut novel, the internationally best-selling My Oxford Year, garnered a Society of Voice Arts award. She is also a Grammy-nominated audiobook director, a former writing tutor, a half-decent amateur baker, and a certified tea sommelier. Her forthcoming book, Thank You for Listening--about a former actress turned successful audiobook narrator who has lost sight of her dreams and her journey of self-discovery, love, and acceptance when she agrees to narrate one last romance novel--releases in August, 2022.

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